Legal abortion in jeopardy
Which road to take in its defense?
Published Jan 23, 2006 9:12 PM
Jan. 22 is the 33rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the
Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. But given the impending confirmation
of right-wing ideologue Samuel Alito, legal abortion is in jeopardy as never
During the recent Senate hearings pro-choice and civil rights
advocates exposed the many bigoted, reactionary, pro-corporate, anti-Roe
positions Alito took as a lawyer for the Reagan administration and later as a
judge. But despite their hue and cry, Sen. Dianne Feinstein—a long-time
supporter of legal abortion—told “Face the Nation” on Jan. 15
that the Democrats in the Senate will not filibuster to block the
Feinstein said that even though she might disagree with Alito,
“that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be on the
That leaves many women’s advocacy and reproductive
rights groups across the U.S., which have traditionally relied on the Democrats
to defend abortion rights, out in the cold.
This is a momentous
development. This betrayal creates an unprecedented crisis for the organized
women’s movement and for the millions of women of child-bearing age in
this country who will be affected if Roe is overturned. While it’s still
too early to know how these organizations will respond, this historic crisis
will surely instigate intense debate within many groups and among many
pro-choice activists and supporters about what course of action to take at this
A number of options are possible. One course of action
is to continue to depend on the Democratic Party. But that’s not likely to
produce results, given its history over the past decade of submission to the
reactionary Republican agenda. For example, Democrats voted a few weeks ago for
a budget that instituted horrific cuts in education, housing and health care
while rewarding the already wealthy with more tax cuts.
Sticking with the
Democrats is a dead-end strategy. A second option is to throw in the towel. But
given that one out of three women in this country has an abortion as a means of
birth control during her lifetime, that would mean selling out the modern-day
struggle for women’s liberation. Legal abortion has become the keystone of
Though some long-time activists decry the continued focus on
abortion, they don’t view it as part of the class struggle.
the ruling class, whose power comes from owning capitalist private property and
from controlling it through the patriarchy, backs the war in Iraq, so too it
backs Bush’s anti-woman agenda. The ruling class does not want women, who
represent more than half the working class and the oppressed in this country, to
determine their own destiny. That would challenge its class privilege and its
power to exploit and oppress at a time when it’s intent on maximizing its
profits in order to dominate the world.
Despite the myth that the
Democrats represent the interests of working and poor people, their purpose has
always been to serve the ruling class. That’s why they’ve chosen to
genuflect before the ruling class and jettison the issue.
A third option
is to strike an independent course, free of both ruling-class parties, and build
alliances with workers’ and civil rights movements and all those fighting
for economic and social justice. That course of action would be in sync with how
the most important gains for workers and the oppressed were won over the last
century—through militant mass struggle.
Mother Jones neatly summed
it up: “Don’t mourn. Organize.”
sit-down strikes won unions in the 1930s, which bettered working conditions for
all workers. And Rosa Parks’ refusal to cooperate with segregation in 1955
propelled the drive for Black liberation that continues to this day.
It’s important to note that the modern women’s movement was
inspired by the civil rights struggle, just as the fight for women’s
suffrage grew out of the abolitionist movement in the 19th century.
Building an independent militant mass movement, which highlights the
special needs of women of color as part of the fight for all women, including
lesbian, bisexual and trans women, rural and immigrant, is in the spirit of the
women’s liberation movement that exploded in the late 1960s.
lawyers and doctors gave legal and medical reasons why abortion should be legal,
it was women taking to the streets in huge numbers all around the country that
spurred the Supreme Court, with seven Republican to two Democratic appointees,
to decide in favor of legal abortion in 1973.
Because two cases involving
abortion are already on the Supreme Court’s 2006 calendar and a
third—which challenges the legality of the ban on so-called partial birth
abortion passed by Congress in 2003—will soon be added to the roster,
pro-choice activists and their allies will need to move decisively in the months
But they can take heart that the movement for legal abortion
stretches around the world. Tens of thousands of women marched in Milan, Italy
on Jan. 14 to defend the current law allowing abortions during the first three
months of pregnancy.
On Nov. 17, the United Nations Human Rights Committee
affirmed in a case involving a Peruvian woman that denying access to legal
abortion violates women’s most basic human rights. “We are thrilled
that the UNHRC has ruled in favor of protecting women’s most essential
human rights,” said Luisa Cabal, director of the International Legal
Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Every woman who lives in
any of the 154 countries that are party to this treaty—including the
U.S—now has a legal tool to use in defense of her
Over the past 33 years women’s health clinics have
been blockaded and bombed, doctors have been murdered and legislation in many
states has set severe limits on access to abortion. A crucial battle for legal
abortion lies ahead. Just as a coalition of women’s groups—including
for the first time organizations of women of color—held a multinational
march of a million, young and old, in April 2004 in defense of women’s
reproductive rights, it’s time to take to the streets once again.
Sue Davis, a long-time activist for women’s rights, edited
“Women Under Attack: Victories, Backlash and the Fight for Reproductive
Freedom” (South End Press)
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